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Amsterdam’s Permissive Drug Policies Catching On In Europe With PM-Addicts’ Park

March 26, 1992 GMT

AMSTERDAM, Netherlands (AP) _ Amsterdam’s permissive drug policies, criticized since the 1960s by authorities across Europe, are now beginning to gain supporters among some former detractors.

Rising addiction, the AIDS epidemic and drug-related crime have prompted authorities in several German and Swiss cities to conclude, like the Dutch, that there is little sense in prosecuting drug abusers.

A group of 17 cities and regions in Germany, Italy, Greece, Portugal, Switzerland and the Netherlands recently joined forces to press the European Community to liberalize drug laws.

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″We have seen that repressive drug policies have failed,″ said Horst Bossong, drug policy coordinator for Hamburg, Germany.

German cities had long been Amsterdam’s harshest critics, accusing the Dutch capital of undermining European drug enforcement efforts with its laissez faire approach.

The German government, as well as Spain, Italy and other European governments, have tough laws on drug use and trafficking.

″It is a form of capitulation if you legalize taking drugs,″ said German Health Ministry spokeswoman Annelies Ilona Klug.

But the German government no longer opposes the private use of marijuana, hashish or heroin if regional authorities don’t object, Klug said.

The German policy shift comes at a time of tougher anti-drug policies in the United States, where spending on anti-drug programs has nearly doubled since 1989 to $12.7 billion.

Amsterdam has long been a magnet for drug abusers, with police turning a blind eye to heroin and cocaine for personal use. Around the Netherlands, marijuana and hashish are sold openly in hundreds of coffee shops - something not permitted elsewhere in Europe.

Despite this, Amsterdam is the only European city where narcotics addiction appears to be falling. The number of addicts has declined to 6,200 from 7,000 five years ago, according to city officials.

Amsterdam’s so-called ″harm reduction″ program entitles addicts to free daily doses of methadone, a cheap heroin substitute that is equally addictive.

Amsterdam police and health workers say their program counters drug-related crime and prevents the spread of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome through syringe-exchange programs.

In Hamburg and Frankfurt, methadone is available in city clinics and through local physicians. The cities have also adopted Amsterdam’s policy toward the so-called ″soft drugs,″ tolerating hashish and marijuana use.

In the Swiss city of Basel, addicts can drop into city-run ″street rooms″ where they can take any drugs they bring with them and get clean needles.

About 500 people are treated in Basel’s decade-old methadone program, which city officials credit with keeping overdose deaths at 20 per year from all illicit drugs.

Frankfurt started its methadone program last year after its addict population reached 8,000, up from 6,000 five years ago.

Addicts roamed the city’s international banking district, where muggings were commonplace and addicts could be seen injecting drugs and lying dazed from overdoses.

″You couldn’t go into this area on any given day without seeing somebody dying,″ said the city’s drug policy coordinator, Werner Schneider.

Addicts have been dispersed to several methadone clinics around Frankfurt. Schneider said it is too early to tell if the methadone program is effective.

But Frankfurt and Hamburg now want to go a step further and distribute heroin to hardened addicts who don’t respond to methadone. But Bossong, the Hamburg drug office chief, isn’t optimistic about the chances.

Frankfurt, Hamburg, Zurich, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Arnhem, the Athens suburb of Kallithea, and the northern Italian province of Teramo last year signed the Frankfurt Charter, which calls for ″decriminalization and de-penalization″ of drug use and users.

The cities say their aim is to improve inner-city conditions, rather than to reform addicts. And they still insist that they will fight drug trafficking.

Advocates of drug liberalization concede that tolerant policies can backfire.

Until recently, 4,000 dealers and users congregated daily at Zurich’s Platzspitz Park, nicknamed ″Needle Park,″ where crime was rampant.

Pressure from citizens forced Zurich police to close the park last month, but 150 addicts moved into surrounding areas, where many residents now feel threatened.